Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Annual Book Fair Fundraiser

Saturday, October 29th, 2011
Washington Square‘s annual Book Fair Fundraiser is happening this Sunday, October 30th, from 11:00am to 4:00pm at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 58 West 10th Street, New York, NY 10011. We would love to see you there! Some of the staff members will even be in costume, to add to the Halloween-themed atmosphere of the day.
Here’s a little more about it: 

+ Open to the public
+ No books priced over $5
+ Baked goods for sale

+ Remaining books will be donated to Housing Works*

*Housing Works pioneered the concept of social enterprise–businesses whose profits fund the mission of a parent not-for-profit organization. Supportive services include but are not limited to housing, healthcare, meals and nutritional counseling, mental health and substance use treatment, job training, and legal assistance. (http://www.housingworks.org/)

Summer Reviews Roundup: The Curfew

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

 

“William ate the rest of his lunch in silence. He put what he had learned in a box and he shut that box. To do otherwise would be to give signs that he had learned something, some new information, and such behavior—indicative of new information—is what alerts those who are looking for traitors. He could not even consider having learned that which he had learned, which after all was practically nothing. Just an idea, a hope of an idea. Away with it for now.”

The Curfew takes place in a city of invisible tyrants—a city where people go missing and grandmothers shoot police officers. Add to this a lost mother, a mute daughter, a father on a quest, and a puppet show. Jesse Ball (The Way Through Doors) creates a modern fable, nests and chops his narratives so that his reader is always pleasantly dislodged. Perhaps because of his background in poetry and art, Ball has meticulous methods of placement and composition. This book feels like something that was not written but put together from raw materials. Asides and observations mix with the story, and so The Curfew is full of aphoristic, fantastical flashes: “There is a theory that the sun is made up of thousands of suns arranged in a war against the others. It is a discredited theory, but it has never been disproven.” Think of this book as a novella and a sketch, a poem and a collage. It is pieces put together for a reason, and in the middle of it all there is still the story—a father who gives everything to keep his daughter safe, a daughter who reaches for anything within her power to learn her father’s fate—acting as a warm human thread that is never subsumed.

Cat Richardson, Managing Editor

Summer Reviews Roundup: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton, forward by Maxine Kumin

Mariner Books

ISBN-13: 978-0395957769

Here we are presented with an unflinching account of one of the great, highly original confessionals, illuminated in no small part by Maxine Kumin’s introduction. This is a practical tome, a Sexton survey that is best read in twenty-page doses. It’s also a striking concordance of her poetics; the ability to track the devices which constitute Sexton’s sensibility may prove its most useful aspect. We follow her wary sojourn towards God—“God is in your typewriter,” she was told—where her most scathing surrealism emerges: “Jesus was fasting. / He ate His celibate life. / The ground shuddered like an ocean, / a great sexual swell under His feet.” We follow her rhyming as it develops from a decorative stand-in for gravitas to a resonant, architectonic feature; in Love Poems (1969), this utterly conversational musicality reaches its culmination in tandem with gripping lineation. Sexton then turned to the mythic, reworking all manner of fable and fairy-tale in preparation for her later poems, which tackle her Christian mythology with a taut, peculiar faith. Her poetry is particularly suited to the frenzied asymptote between the cerebral and the carnal, piety and appetite: “For they fling together against hardness and somewhere, in another room, a light is clicked on by gentle fingers.”  She finds curious objects which fulfill the dual role of holy symbols and meals, arranging them in absurd litanies as befits her taste for the liturgical cadence, if not the precise content.

To be sure, there are many clunkers once everything is considered. There are times when Plath’s rigor might have benefitted Sexton’s lines a great deal: “Angel of hopes and calendars, do you know despair?” Her fierce dedication to the actuals of the body (genitalia and all), while necessary, will not always be appreciated. She also has a tendency to wring a certain turn of phrase dry if it works once—her catalogue of sea-actions ages quickly, as does her taste for possessives. These, however, can’t touch the resplendence of the greater portion of her output, characterized mostly by successful poem-cycles. While she championed the self as an inexhaustible reservoir, meanwhile asserting the female voice with formidable creative energies, it is clear that her genius rests on neither confessionalism nor feminism alone. To borrow Kumin’s phrase, Sexton has earned her place in the canon by advancing the frontiers of the English language’s unique poetic territory: diction both brutal and sinuous, ritualization, mythmaking, and the talent for extrapolating Place from Self.

Peter Longofono, International Editor

Summer Reviews Roundup: Creatures of Habit

Saturday, September 17th, 2011
Creatures of Habit by Jill McCorkle
Shannon Ravenel Books
ISBN-13: 978-1565123977

Each of the twelve short stories in Creatures of Habit pulls you in deep and quick, and each contemplates the basic, animal aspects of human behavior. They’re set in small-town North Carolina and feature, among other characters: a neighborhood witch and her turd-throwing monkey, a senile and murderous nursing home resident, a husband-snatching next-door neighbor, and a woman on a honeymoon with the wrong guy. It’s dirty, human stuff—reality TV stuff—brilliantly nuanced and rendered by the skillful Jill McCorkle. I met Jill McCorkle this summer at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. In the words of Mike Yanagita, she’s such a super lady. She’s been compared to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, and I think the comparisons are merited. McCorkle’s insanely good at getting people right:  she unearths the most subtle and troubling aspects of human endeavor in her stories, and deftly exposes the humor in human frailty. Her prose is clear and confident, honest and funny, and very, very Southern. Highly recommended!

Mary Block, Interviews Editor

Summer Reviews Roundup: Climate Reply

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011
Climate Reply by Trey Moody
New Michigan Press
ISBN-13: 978-1934832264

These poems occur in a forest of sorts. These poems occur at night.

Trey Moody’s poems aren’t nature poems in the traditional sense—that is, they’re not clear heirs apparent to the works and poetic lineages of Wordsworth, Thoreau, and (to a lesser extent) Whitman—but are instead indicative of a newer, hybridized breed of poem that simultaneously inhabits the natural and human spheres. Trees abound, but so do kitchen utensils. “The loud knives // gleam along the forests” Moody writes in “The Listener, the Land,” and the encroachment of each world on the other gives the reader the sense of having stumbled upon a rusted-out mechanical relic in the woods at night. Or, equally plausibly, an oak tree mysteriously growing through his kitchen floor in the pre-dawn hours of the morning.

Moody’s poems also separate themselves from traditional nature poetry in the same way that Whitman’s, and later Frost’s and Glück’s, do: the inclusion of human beings and human agency. “When I open the fridge // in the middle of the night, I can hear / you thinking behind me,” Moody writes in the fourth section of “Dear Ghosts,” titled “Hum of the Fridge Like Thought.” Ghostly presences persist through Moody’s poems, presences the narrator “misse[s]… the most” and whom he entreats to “knock once if you believe // in structural security, twice / for mutual relationships.” While domestic images—light bulbs, refrigerators, cellars—contribute to the dual sense of interiority and exteriority in Climate Reply, the clincher is the human element, the component of the collection that makes the dialogue implied in its title possible. Who’s replying to the climate? To whom is the climate replying?

Trey Moody’s book doesn’t answer these questions, but it does complicate and compound them: echoes respond to echoes, people talk to the night sky, bodies commune and communicate with bodies. These poems are equal parts visceral and surreal, expansive and personal, and if you can’t read poetry alone in the woods at night, reading Climate Reply in your kitchen at 2:00 am may just be the next best thing.

Eric Weinstein, Poetry Editor

Review: Platform

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

In this week’s review, I’m really quite stymied by the book I encountered, the French Michel Houllebecq’s Platform. This novel is a little difficult to summarize, but the main trajectory of its plot has to do with the rising popularity of “sex tourism” among Europeans in Asia and Latin America. That in itself could be an intriguing world for a novel to explore, and the book is filled with wry, astute comments about the shallow, exploitative nature of tourism and the slightly bitter, depressing side of the false relationships that arise when on vacation. If that were all that occured in the book, I’d have very little to say about it. But the fact remains that Platform is a novel that really made me question that vague, blurry definition of what pornography is.

Nearly every scene in Platform is a sex scene, and each is extreme, explicit, graphic, and idealized. These are the sort of things that would make me normally define something as pornography, as opposed to erotica. The plot begins to seem a mere service to the sex scenes — another characteristic I think is intrinsic to most pornography. The only things that make me doubtful are the quality of the prose and the non-objectifying nature of the sex scenes. Generally, these scenes are a meeting of equals and are not objectifying to either the males or females involved. The prose is also of the highest caliber. So by the end of Platform, I was left baffled — a little embarrassed to be reading the book on the subway, too — but mostly confused about what sort of book I was really reading.

French writers can often treat sexuality in a more permissive way than American writers. In fact, the main character of this novel comments often on the prudishness of American attitudes toward sex: for Americans, the character argues, sex is more often a moral matter, and still tightly wrapped up with shame. The characters in this book, by contrast, see sex only as part of the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure is never wrong. It may be my American sensibilities talking, but ultimately I was left cold by Platform because its romantic scenes left me with the feeling that pornography does with a reader: it is ultimately the depiction of physical acts entirely stripped of their intimacy or meaning.

Review: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

This week I raced through some debut fiction by one of the hottest new writers in the publishing world today. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower, is an electrifying, ravaging work; it is a collection of stories that captures some of the gritty gothic old feel of Joyce Carol Oates, and some new freshness and irony for a new generation. Tower is capturing the half-ruined world of a lower-middle-class, male population in most of these stories. Booze features largely, as does infidelity and divorce. Compromised lives and broken dreams are a given; now there can only be the hope of some sort of peace or healing from trauma and old wounds. The lives of his characters certainly have been ravaged and burned. Wells uses dialect and idiom well, but also shows his writing chops when he describes the ocean, the woods, the eerie lights of a carnival. He has been selected as one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40″ to watch, and I’ll be awaiting his next collection or novel eagerly.

A favorite story of mine was definitely “On the Show”, a story about the underbelly of the carnival world. Tower lets his writing abilities relax and unfurl in this story, becoming more lyrical and sinuous in style, using the present tense to allow the sights and sounds and smells of the carnival, in all its filthy splendor, to come to life. The peripheral characters operate on a dreamlike plane; nearly everyone has a story, some reason to be felt for.

Another highlight is the clever title story, which is about a crew of Vikings out on a pillaging trip, but is told in modern vernacular, as if a bunch of bar buddies today decided to go burning and looting as an ordinary weekend activity. It’s funny and oddly touching.

Other stories in the collection still felt like the work of a new writer to me, someone anxious to prove himself capable of imitating familiar structures. “The Brown Coast” pulls in its main story and compliments it with a “B” line story about fish that represents the main action too neatly, not allowing the story to breathe and become messy and life-like. That, though, is a nervousness that will probably evaporate as this writer continues to develop his confidence and his already impressive powers.

Review: Room

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Have you heard about Room, by Emma Donoghue, the novel that has been on a lot of best-of lists this year? It’s the kind of book to attract a lot of attention, because it’s from the perspective of a five-year-old, and one who is in a very unusual and horrifying situation. Jack’s entire world is Room, Ma, and Old Nick. He was born in Room and has never left it — and his mother is the prisoner of a sinister man who has kept him there in a kind of fortified dungeon for his own sexual exploitation. Emma Donoghue went down a risky road by trying to capture this horrific scenario with the voice of a bubbly five-year-old boy who has no understanding of the horror of his situation. Though it seems to falter in a few places, Room does manage to pull off this trick, and creates a moving and ultimately joyful world in the relationship between mother and son.

Room is a strange hybrid novel. While reading it, I was aware of at least three different ways my mind wanted to read it, and how I kept jumping back and forth among the three. In one way, Room is a fascinating and detailed psychological portrait. It captures the mindset of an adult imprisoned for seven years in a room as a slave, helpless and forced to be submissive to protect herself. It also explores the admittedly intriguing psychology of a child raised in an eleven-by-eleven foot space, raised to believe what he saw on television was all fake, that no other people in the world exist but himself, his mother, and the man who brings them everything they need, but also keeps them imprisoned. For Jack, the world is complete and satisfying; it’s all he’s ever known, and so it is not lacking in any way. He is playful and finds ways to make toys out of garbage or household objects. He can’t conceive of trees or wide open space or animals. All this is gripping stuff for me — I’ve always been very interested in psychology. But that is only “Room” on one level.

After the jump: the review, continued.

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Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Monday, April 25th, 2011

This week’s review is of another book I finished recently and that is a daring and controversial entry into the world of religious debate. Let me say right off that I’m an ardent fan of Philip Pullman and his revelatory, breathtakingly original series His Dark Materials. In this trilogy of young adult novels, Pullman uses an exciting adventure-and-fantasy story to put forward a powerful argument about the poisonous corruption of organized religion, most notably the Catholic church. Needless to say, this was a controversial and somewhat scandalous story, with its elements including the death of God, homosexual angels, young love, and other touchy subjects! But if you are interested in a critical and probing look at the effect of organized religion in our lives, His Dark Materials is unmissable.

All this is a long lead-up to Pullman’s latest, deeply interesting work, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Pullman’s medium is fantasy; he uses fictions and re-imaginings of old stories to espouse daring truths. In this novel, he is reimagining the New Testament itself. One of the more compelling critiques of His Dark Materials was that it did not acknowledge the virtues of Christianity, including love and charity, a strong community of believers, and non-violence. These things are present in the teachings of Jesus, but they go hand in hand with more troubling arguments. In this fascinating novel, Pullman tackles the two-faced nature of the Jesus we know by splitting him into two brothers, one eager for peace and revelation, the other bent on uniting humanity under a triumphant new banner. By addressing the different events in Jesus’ life and showing how easily they can become twisted and changed, Pullman writes a novel that is ultimately about how stories themselves are made, and how individuals become legends.

In keeping with his source text, Pullman uses a simple, Biblical style, writing with an archaic rhythm and feeling of antiquity. I always enjoy that religious feeling of timelessness and I found myself reading with great enjoyment about these two mythical brothers, not being hit over the head with arguments on doctrine and faith. When Pullman does step back to analyze, his writing is eloquent and his ideas are hauntingly beautiful. When he describes the religion he wants, he writes of a great branching tree, welcoming to all, with each individual contributing to and supported by the whole. Pair that with his images of the cold high towers and waving war banners of religion as it often is, and it’s enough to make you ache.

You will only find The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ interesting if you already have an interest in and knowledge of the Gospels. But if exploring religions and how they are made is your cup of tea, you won’t want to miss this startling, thoughtful book.

How Do You Decide What to Read?

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

It’s a new year, and I’m excited to have a new stack of exciting books on my plate. I’m already diving into the quirky, odd, and oddly fantastical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and also digging happily into this year’s Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo. You can expect reviews of those coming up in the next few weeks as I finish them. In addition to those, I’m looking forward to Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which was on a lot of year-end best-of-2010 lists. Also coming up from my Christmas list: the Dickens classic David Copperfield, the new Pushcart Prize anthology, The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, and several others.

I’m lucky to be given these books for my own enjoyment and edification, but it’s gotten me wondering how you decide what books are the best to have on your list. Do you go from a best-of list? Do you take recommendations from friends? From siblings? From parents? From enemies? Do you go into a bookstore and pick based on the covers or back-cover blurbs? How do you decide? And what do you do to ensure you’re getting a thorough and satisfying fiction experience?

I’m opening it up to you, readers — how do you decide what to read next?